By Ifure Ataifure
Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Enough is Enough (EiE), and BudgIT have been doing great work. Nigerians like them and they get positive press for their efforts, which they should do everything possible not to abuse.
SERAP has been at the forefront of utilizing the Freedom of Information Act, often dragging recalcitrant government ministries, departments and agencies before the courts to compel them to release information that they are not willing to make public. BudgIT has done much to simplify the otherwise cumbersome data around government, it makes them into easy to understand infographics that are easy to understand and trendy at the same time. EiE has done much to translate the works of the other two to street actions, often being the rallying point of protests against opaque tendencies in government.
To their credit, the history of entrenchment of good governance in Nigeria, when it finally happens, cannot be told without acknowledging and commending the roles played by this trio. They have built for themselves such reputation that the mere mention of their names is enough to get the cooperation of otherwise indifferent public office holders. It is a reputation that has gotten them seats at the table in various international engagements where matters of transparency and good governance is discussed. The leaderships of the three organizations have been recognized with awards for the work they are doing and in other instances their performance have guaranteed them prestigious grants and funding.
But there is something about reputation. It is like a balloon. One brush against a sharp object and it gets deflated, fit for no use except perhaps to be recycled and deployed to other uses. Reputation is like choice cut of meat that stays prime to the extent that it is preserved under the right environment like in a refrigerator. Power the fridge off long enough and the same choice cut goes bad, putrid and something that becomes toxic for consumption.
Like guarding the balloon against contact with sharp objects or taken caution to ensure the refrigerator stays powered, SERAP, EiE and BudgIT must take precautions what they allow themselves to be dragged into. There are issues around the personal lives of those driving the groups that are kept out of the job they do to the benefit of the country, so that could be immaterial here. There are relationships they maintain with certain politicians that would not be condoned in other climes because it would cast doubts on the work they do, dent on their capacity to be objective. But Nigerians are willing to look away from such blemishes to the extent that these organizations are not seen to be partisan.
The recent letter jointly signed by Bamisope Adeyanju of SERAP, Seun Akinyemi of EiE and Atiku Samuel of BudgIT, addressed to Lt. General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, Chief of Army Staff (COAS), requesting details of the Army’s budget could unravel the gentleman understanding that has allowed Nigerians ignore the limited impropriety on the part of those running the show at these places. The letter wants the COAS to “urgently provide information on the 2015, 2016 and 2017 budget implementation reports of the Nigerian Army, including the amounts released (financial implications) and expended in fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017 for the various operations the Army carried out.”
Addressed to any other agency of government it would have been a welcome development since it will beam the searchlight on one more sector of the country and certainly initiate some measure of accountability in such place. But what could be wrong with making such request of the Army?
First, the request smacks of ignorance. Too bad that this strain of ignorance is wilful because the petitioners knew even before they filed their request that it is one not likely to be granted on account of requested details directly impacting the security of the country. It also wilfully ignores Section 11 of the Freedom of Information Act that stated in sub-section (1) that “A public institution may deny an application for any information the disclosure of which may be injurious to the conduct of international Affair and the defence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Secondly, there is no record that any of the people that these organizations hobnob with on the international scene had successfully pulled off such requests in their own countries. If that was possible it would have been a cakewalk for Nigeria to track how some these countries directly and indirectly finance Boko Haram to destroy Nigeria. It would have been easy to track how these countries pay for the sophisticated weapons that Boko Haram fighters take to the battlefield and possibly even lead us to uncovering the receipts for haulage of those weapons to the terrorists, which would effectively allow the Nigerian Army to know how to cut off Boko Haram supplies. But the nations that give grants to SERAP, EiE and BudgIT are opaque in their defence spending to the extent that these things are untraceable. Yet, they these groups accepted the assignment to be the minions that will get information for these covertly hostile nations about how the Nigerian Army has been able to circumvent the arms purchase blockade that has slowed down the eradication of Boko Haram.
Thirdly, without prejudice to their rights to personal relationships, these groups should have sequestered themselves from filing the petition on the account of their personal relationship with some other interests that have been openly hostile to the Nigerian Army on a scale bothering on obsession. The CEO of one of the groups is a protégée of the presidential candidate of Allied Congress Party of Nigeria (ACPN), Oby Ezekwesili. She is one of the owners of Bring Back Our Girl (BBOG) group that transited from seeking the safe return of the abducted Chibok School Girls into a rent-a-crowd rabble that has deployed for any conceivable cause provided the protest is against the army. This particular CEO hangs around Oby anytime he is in Abuja and even shuns hotels to take up transit accommodation in her abode. So it this request continuation of a vendetta against the army on Oby’s behalf? Is it a cover to get information that she can use to bolster her lacklustre campaign? Is the information being sought for onward transmission to contacts that are known to Oby in the course of her international work?
Whatever the answers are, they definitely will not smell nice.
Furthermore, the staffers of these groups interact constantly with operatives of Amnesty International, Transparency International, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and host of other entities that had made it clear in the past that they have an axe to grind with Buratai’s leadership of the army. Should the Nigerian Army be naïve enough to provide the requested information, how much of it would be passed onto the aforementioned organizations? What guarantees are there that they would be professionally managed not to further pass into questionable hands? These posers should be considered against the backdrop of a UNICEF that only recently has its suspension from the northeast reversed. Part of allegation against it was that it was passing intelligence to Boko Haram terrorists. What country will then pass information that can expose the nitty-gritty of its military asset to groups that are connected with an organization that has been caught passing information to terrorists?
Nigerians have in the past praised the work of the trio in speaking truth to power and holding public office holders to account. But their request to acquire sensitive military information is a handshake taken past the elbow. With the little known about the shady side of these groups one can only conclude that they are engaged in flagrant abuse of their positions as activists and social crusaders. Persisting on the path they have recently chosen will shred their credibility and taint their reputation, which would only go to hurt the only community left to challenge those in power. But the call is theirs to make whether they desire to end up as villains or to remain as champions of accountability.
In conclusion, the Nigerian Army must ensure it is in no way intimidated by the stature of SERAP, EiE or BudgIT. Their clout is not enough to stop Boko Haram so the army cannot afford to compromise sensitive information to satisfy groups that no one knows for certain what they plan to do with the requested information.
Ataifure is a research fellow at the Centre for International and Stratgic Studies, Abuja.